Florencia Manovil thinks the film industry has an ego problem — a big, masculine ego problem. The Argentinian director has felt this way since 1998, when she first started film school at Boston’s Emerson College. Working sets on and off campus, Manovil said, she was routinely demeaned and patronized by male co-workers with less experience.
“It was very toxically sexist,” she tells BUST, her naturally high voice turning sour. “That’s a very common thing — the big egos, that you have to serve and tiptoe around.”
Her college years proved to Manovil that she wanted to work in film — but nowhere near the mainstream industry. One afternoon, while working on a set she terms “notoriously male dominated,” Manovil noticed that the assistant director was marking the script with the wrong notation. When she tried to help, he immediately became defensive.
“He told me I didn’t know what I was talking about, spewed something random at me, and walked away,” she says. “It was such a boys’ clique, and I was so disgusted. I vowed then and there that this wouldn’t be my life."
Manovil has stuck true to her vow. She’s still in the film business, but she’s doing it her own way: No sexism or elitism allowed. This February, she debuted her queer-centered dramedy, Dyke Central, on Amazon Video Direct — and she’s now one of the many directors working to bring more inclusive content to a mainstream audience.
Manovil’s show follows three queer women of color, who live together in a Bay Area home they lovingly call “Dyke Central”: the warm, adventurous Gin (Giovannie Espiritu), the playful Fabi (Carla Pauli), and the somber, reserved Alex (Tai Rockett). The supporting cast is similarly diverse: Gin’s friend Zack identifies as trans, as does her co-worker; most of the characters aren't white, and none are heterosexual.
But despite boasting one of the most diverse casts in media history, the plot is comfortably relatable. It’s akin to that of Broad City or Gilmore Girls: The women love each other, fight with each other, and depend on each other as they navigate the near-universal struggle of finding yourself in your twenties.
The central drama of the show is a love triangle: at the outset of Dyke Central, Alex is in a dysfunctional relationship with Jackie (Comika Hartford). But when Gin invites Fabi to fill the vacant room in their apartment, she accidentally reignites a relationship from years past, forcing Alex to figure out what — and who — she wants. Jealousy, lies, and subtext-laden game nights ensue.
Dyke Central also explores more serious narratives, like abusive relationships, mental illness, and addiction. But it works to focus the plot on the characters and their problems — not their racial, sexual, or gender diversity. “Every single character on there has a full life,” Espiritu said. “It’s not a plot point that the trans people are trans. They’re just trans!”
This distinction is important, Manovil and Espiritu say, because of the way diversity is typically represented in the media. They cite a few major problems: first and foremost, that diverse characters are seldom represented at all. According to a study from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), there were only 70 LGBTQ characters on original scripted series from Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu during the 2017-2018 season — and 77% of those characters were white.
This is dynamic is especially problematic in trans roles. Trans characters in mainstream media are often played by straight white men (looking at you, Eddie Redmayne and Jared Leto), a practice which has only recently drawn ire from the film community.
And even when the mainstream industry features queer characters or characters of color, says Espiritu, the roles are tokenizing, focusing more on a person’s diversity than their humanity. That’s why she thinks Dyke Central is so important. “Because it portrays people with different gender identities as normal, it just adds to the social conversation that we're human,” she said. “We have hearts, we bleed. And what we dream about, who we love, is just the same as anybody else.”
Manovil agrees. “I want to offer an authentic slice of life,” she said, and my hope is that people will see themselves reflected in that—not just queer people of color, but all people.”
Manovil’s commitment to authenticity and representation is not only her directorial mission — it’s the reason for her friendship with Espiritu. She first caught Espiritu’s eye in 2008, after publishing a casting call for her first film, Fiona’s Script. The call asked for “all body types” and minimal makeup, a far cry from exacting mainstream standards. Espiritu had just been dropped by her own agent for gaining ten pounds and looking too “matronly,” she said, and Manovil’s words were a refreshing change. Espiritu auditioned, and was cast in a supporting role. The pair have been close ever since.
"There's still an old guard in Hollywood,” Espiritu said. “You don't get called in, they don't even look at you if you don't fit a particular standard. It's changing, but it's changing slowly.”
“She wants to change the world,” Espiritu added. “I would do anything for her, literally.”
Manovil’s directorial style is similarly open and compassionate — a far cry from the sexist sets of her college years. “You hear all these horror stories about filmmakers who are super ego-based, and love to take it out on the actors so they can feel in charge on set,” Espiritu said. “Florencia’s not like that — at all. She’s very caretaking, not only of her actors, but of the crew.”
After four years of work, Dyke Central premiered on an indie TVOD (transactional video on demand) platform in 2015. But viewership remained in the low thousands. That changed in early 2018, when Manovil decided to take advantage of Amazon Video Direct to spread her show to a more mainstream audience. Amazon’s updated platform made the process simple, and the results were near-immediate. In one two-week period, viewers watched Dyke Central on indie platform Seed and Spark for 1,200 minutes; in the same two weeks, they watched it on Amazon for 83,000.
The system is not without its flaws. Per hour, Amazon pays only 6 cents in royalties for the first 100,000 minutes that viewers watch; Seed and Spark pays $13.20. Each time a viewer watches all 10 episodes of Dyke Central through Amazon, Manovil only receives 18 cents. The platform might build Manovil a fanbase, but it’s unlikely it’ll ever make her rich (or even compensate her for production expenses). Although she’d love to make a second season, especially to address gentrification in the Bay Area, she wouldn’t do so without a stronger financial backing.
But finances aside, Amazon’s audience has proved quite receptive to Dyke Central. Given that she was bringing her content to the internet-fueled masses, Manovil expected harsh feedback; so far, she hasn’t received any.
“Even if it is a very low-budget show with its drawbacks because of that, people are still very accepting and excited about it,” Manovil said. “I think the queer community is still very, very, very thirsty for authentic representation.”
Espiritu agrees. “It changes the world — just being seen,” she said. “Just being able to say: ‘hey, there's somebody out there like me.’ That's huge.”
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Florencia Manovil
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Victoria Albert is a Boston-born graduate journalism student. She covers reproductive justice, health policy, and feminism, and has written for In These Times and Alternet. She tweets at @victoria_alb3.